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November, already

Royal Festival Hall
11/12/2001 -  

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 29, K. 201, Vado, ma dove, K.583, Bella, mia fiamma, K.528, Voi avete un cor fedele, K.217
Robert Schumann:Symphony No.1 in B flat, Op. 38 "Spring"

Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo soprano)

Chamber Orchestra of Europe

Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor)

Giovanni Gabrieli: Sonata pian'e forte
Peter Lieberson: The six realms
Joseph Haydn: Cello concerto in C major, Hob. VIIb.1
Pierre Boulez: Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna

Yo-Yo Ma (cello)

Orchestre National de Lyon

David Robertson (conductor)

Kaija Saariaho: From the grammar of dreams
Kaija Saariaho (electronics), Anu Komsi (soprano), Piia Komsi (soprano, cello), Ulrike von Meier (harp), Eva Tigerstedt (flute), Anna Kreetta Turunen (viola), Antoine Mercier (sound engineer)

November in London is usually cold and either damp or sopping wet. It also has, along with the equally soggy February and early March, the highest density of regular concerts and opera in the year. June, of course, has a clutch of festivals (or has had up until now), and July has the Proms. But for business as usual, the way to get an idea of London music is to take your pick of the main venues on any rainy November evening.

A comparatively common event in London is a festival-gauge performer in a bread-and-butter programme booked long ago, or slotted into a season at another house. On 12 November, it was Cecilia Bartoli. The Big Star at the Festival Hall was the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, making the chamber-scale complexity of Mozart's 29th symphony both lapidary and dramatic. The Mozart concert arias are studies in singing, musical interpretation and theatrical projection of emotion. Bartoli sang them with such impeccable musicality, style and dramatic sense that you wanted to slap her, or wondered whether Harnoncourt hadn't manufactured her in an evil laboratory somewhere. Bartoli is, of course, her own commendably serious creation, though Harnoncourt has certainly helped, and you have to admire her for doing a bog-standard concert. Most of the audience were ecstatic, possibly responding as the intended original audience for the arias would have. But it's unlikely that anyone experienced anything unexpected in Bartoli's performance -- it was the COE that raised the hairs on the back of the neck.

The concert at the Barbican on 14 November also had a Big Star playing a supporting role, though there is a fighting chance that he planned it that way. Every Japanese student in London (for some reason) seemed to have turned out for Yo-Yo Ma. Ma played two concertos (more or less). Peter Lieberson's The six realms was a Buddhist Divine comedy, a tour of the spiritual cosmos, enacted by the orchestra with a kind of architectural ritual, with the cello as guide. Ma's performance in Haydn Cello concerto was mellow, laid-back even, but that too had an element of symmetrical ritual to it. But it was the ingenious programme as a whole that proved most rewarding: Gabrieli's antiphonal Venetian ritual for brass, who benefited greatly from the Barbican Hall's improved acoustics, and Boulez' Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, extremely moving in its dance of small ensembles around a fixed point, provided a frame in which east and west met with breathtaking impact (Boulez acknowledges Japanese court music as a starting point for the Rituel). David Robertson made this point in a brief but graceful introduction to the last work.

Interestingly, although a substantial proportion of the audience clapped between movements of the Haydn, almost no one left before the scary-looking Boulez, in spite of a ten-minute set-up. Perhaps the theatre of rearranging the musicians' seating into eight small ensembles was engaging enough to keep them there and excite curiosity about the work to follow.

Kaija Saariaho's From the grammar of dreams at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 19 November wasn't quite packed out (though the performance of Graal théâtre, her violin concerto for Gidon Kremer, at the Festival Hall on 24 November was. Saariaho's post-Pelléas opera L'amour de loin was widely acclaimed at the Salzburg Festival last year, and she clearly has a human-based sense of theatre, in contrast to the monumental and court structures in both Harnoncourt's and Robertson's concerts. From the grammar of dreams is programme of songs for two sopranos, harp, viola, cello, flute and electronics, that uses texts by women or about women in some central sense, to explore the sometimes ecstatic, sometimes nightmarish experience of being outside the mainstream of official reality. The title phrase by Sylvia Plath, and its context, is actually the title of a shorter song-cycle within the programme. The title poem is set as an unaccompanied duet for two sopranos, the climax of a gentle series of recombinations of voices and instruments, counterpointed with themes of gaze and desire, while four sets of interwoven fragments of phantasmagoric poetry provide symmetrical unreality checks.

The words and music in the abstract have a touch of Women's Studies circa 1981, but in performance (in spite of all of the musicians and crew but one being female) it is the intangible sense of structure providing meaning in dreams and dreaminess that comes over, quite delightfully. The staging (gold lighting, neutral dresses and the harpist on a separate stand reading an old book between movements) was unobtrusive but suitably otherworldly.

From the grammar of dreams is touring in the UK, rather surprisingly, to Basingstoke after London. It's not clear who will be attracted to go to it, but it is not difficult or alienating, perhaps just not quite challenging, and if they go to it, they will enjoy it.

H.E. Elsom



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